Throughout history, islands have been treated as distinct places and, with this, the idea of insularity – belonging to/being of an island – has been romanticised and associated with otherness. But insularity can also be a story of connections: the sea can provide links rather than divisions, motivating and maintaining informal and formal connections both to other islands and to the mainland.
Both in the past and the present, ‘being an islander’ is a highly fluid state of being. Whether consciously or not, it is a form of social expression, with one’s sense of belonging to a group based on similarities and differences. For the past few years, our interdisciplinary research project (‘Being an Islander: art and identity of the large Mediterranean islands’, 2019-2023) has been investigating precisely this subject, and how ‘insularity’ affected and shaped art production and creativity, architectural evolution, and movement of people, using Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia as case studies. A new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of the outcomes of the project, brings together more than 200 objects from the three Mediterranean islands (most of them never exhibited outside their regional museums) that tell exceptional stories of insular identity over a period of 4,000 years, from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Roman period. Rather than the modern political boundaries, through which we witness islands today, we aim to think of the Mediterranean islands and the sea that surrounds them in terms of connectivity and mobility. We have approached island identity, art, and cultural expression as a dynamic interplay shaped by social and historical episodes, rather than geography.
The relationship between people and things is what reveals important aspects of the islands’ identity. The Fitzwilliam Museum is home to an exceptional collection of Cypriot antiquities, but it has few holdings of Cretan antiquities and none from Sardinia. The loans from Crete and Sardinia allow our Cypriot collections to enter a dialogue with the material culture of the other two islands, revealing unique aspects of the islanders’ everyday life, identity, community structures, rituals and beliefs, language and scripts, and the ways they approach death and memory of their ancestors.
Are islands inherently different from mainlands? Historically, in the Mediterranean, some islands rose to the role of mini-continents due to their size and economic and political importance. Ancient Greeks, for example, considered Sicily a continent. Likewise, the large Mediterranean islands of Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia were often given a special status due to their size, as they occupy an intermediate position between small island worlds, such as the network of Aegean islands, and the surrounding mainlands.
Being an islander can be a physical or imagined concept, yet inhabitants of the same island might not have shared the same type of identity: rather, island identities might have shifted depending on daily lives and experiences, as well as connections beyond their immediate surroundings. For example, objects from the Iron Age burial assemblages of the Kouklia-Skales cemetery in Cyprus, including a bronze hemispherical bowl and a bronze helmet (both c.1050-700 BC), bear witness to a time – from the Early Iron Age to the Hellenistic period – when the island was much fragmented in social and political terms, and divided into seven city-kingdoms. And while the inhabitants of each of these kingdoms would identify and associate with the common, island-wide identity of being Cypriots (the Kyprioii), at the same time they would reveal local, community-driven identities. The finds from the Kouklia-Skales cemetery reveal two different strands of community identity: one characterised by strong elements of Greek material culture (such as metal vases of Greek types, among them the only known tripod cauldron in Cyprus, and the bronze helmet), whereas other artefacts (gold jewellery and imported pottery) illustrate the influence of the Syrian-Phoenician region on other communities in the island.
Sardinia, too, was home to distinct local identities, such as the Filigosa culture (c.3000-2400 BC) in parts of the north-western and central-southern island. Megalithic monuments and the worship of warrior ancestors were key components of their cultural identity. They also left behind figurines, such as a white marble headless statuette from the necropolis of Porto Ferro, Alghero, which represents a mother goddess known as the perforated-plate type.
During the Late Bronze Age Nuragic times (c.1500-1200 BC), Sardinian communities shared a common sense of identity based on the repetition of island-wide architecture, practices, and lifeways, often in the vicinity of a nuraghe, an indigenous stone tower. This identity, however, was a product of social choices and was subject to constant reconfiguration of the way they perceived themselves and of their interactions with the unique Sardinian landscape and others within it. The protohistoric Bonnanaro culture, which flourished between 2200 and 1800 BC, is considered the first phase of the Nuragic civilisation. Bonnanaro culture sites are found throughout the island, particularly near the the mining regions of Nurra and Sulcis-Iglesiente and in the Campidano. They are mostly burials, like Tomb 1 in Is Calitas Soleminis in southern Sardinia. There, a shell necklace was excavated together with many other types of grave offerings, such as cups, bowls, and tripods, and a stone brazier. The tomb was dug as a pit with unworked walls and could have originally been a natural deposit of clay, emptied and used by the community for burials. This type of tomb contained multiple burials, with bodies placed one above the other separated by a small quantity of soil.
As well as the distinctive stone towers, bronze statuettes given as offerings also express aspects of late Nuragic cultural identity. A great number of bronze rings, votive swords, bracelets, and daggers were excavated at the Iron Age (c.1000-700 BC) sanctuary of Abini Teti, together with a fascinating repertoire of figurines: warriors with spears, shields, and helmets with long, curved horns; archers; supplicants and people at prayer. One intriguing example shows a standing male figure with four arms who is holding two shields. Four eyes are depicted on his face. He wears a crested helmet on his head, and his hair is styled in long braids that hang down on his chest. This is a popular type of statuette, representing the so-called ‘demonic beings’ – that is, individuals with four eyes, four arms, and two shields – and it serves as an expression of the mythical-religious vision central to the Nuragic cultural universe.
Key to understanding the islands’ long histories is the movement of people and goods. The intensity of mobility varied through time and space, and not all members of island communities may have participated in it, yet mobility was and is still a prominent feature of island life. Mediterranean connections begin as early as the Final Neolithic (the latest part of the Neolithic period in Greece, c.4500-3200 BC) and intensified in the Early Bronze Age with the use of sailing boats and longboats. While Cyprus and Crete are seen as inherently connected islands, Sardinia was originally regarded as more isolated. Yet new archaeological investigations have shown the strength of Sardinia’s connection with southern Italy and its participation in long-distance trading networks.
The Middle Bronze Age saw the major expansion of a dynamic network of connections, trade routes, and cultural influences driven by seafaring. The exceptional position of Crete at the entrance to the Aegean Sea became especially important during this period, and Sardinia likewise grew in significance on the Mediterranean east–west routes, as revealed through the island’s involvement in regional and long-distance trade during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. In Crete, the Minoans rose to become one of the most significant maritime powers of the east Mediterranean. The critical place of the sea is highlighted in the Marine Style of the Late Minoan period (c.1500-1450 BC). Found in the town of Palaikastro, one ovoid rhyton in this style, with a pouring hole in its bottom, bears black decoration of corals and nautili against a net pattern, perhaps representing the seabed, rocks, and seaweed. It would have been used for decanting liquids on special occasions, perhaps libation ceremonies, whose aim was probably the religious and political consolidation or reinforcement of the ruling class of Neopalatial (1700-1450 BC) Cretan society.
Other Minoan ceramics include prestigious Kamares ware, characteristic of Middle Bronze Age central Crete, with its polychrome decoration of painted geometric and abstract designs. Pieces have been found at the Palace of Phaistos and the Palace of Knossos in Crete, but also in mainland Greece and in Egypt, proof of the strong contacts Minoans had outside the island in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC.
A small bronze figurine of a crawling baby represents a rather different type of Minoan art, one of the rare depictions of the young in Minoan visual culture. Though the feet and hands are crudely shaped and there is little facial detail, the maker has perfectly captured the effort of movement. The figurine was discovered in the Psychro Cave in eastern Crete, a site associated with the Diktaean Cave where the god Zeus was said to have been born. In use as a sacred place from around 1600 BC to 700 BC, the lower of the two chambers at Psychro was filled with many small bronze objects. Human figurines were mostly dedicated in Cretan peak sanctuaries (open-air worship sites), but the caves of Psychro and Ida stand out as the only sacred caves that have yielded this type of object.
Thanks to its rich copper resources and metallurgical innovations, Cyprus is regarded as a driving force for the connections and mobility not just between the ancient Levant and Anatolia, but also with Crete and Sardinia. Copper ingots shaped like oxhide – the form in which copper was shipped between the islands, and in which it is found, for example, at Agia Triada, Crete – attest to a well-established copper industry in Cyprus that traded all over the Mediterranean, as well as to how islanders advertised external relationships using foreign goods.
A remarkable bronze (copper-alloy) figurine from Cyprus shows the goddess Astarte standing on a miniature one of these oxhide-ingots. The figurine’s gesture and nudity relate to her cult as a fertility goddess, like Cypriot terracotta ‘bird-shaped’ figurines; the worship of fertility was deeply rooted in Cypriot religion. Astarte was worshipped over thousands of years, from the Bronze Age into classical antiquity, and from the Levant to Egypt, Cyprus, and even as far west as the Iberian Peninsula. Her cult became particularly widespread during the Late Bronze Age (c.1200-1100 BC), when Phoenician people in the Mediterranean introduced her worship to their colonies. Only one other ‘Astarte-on-the-ingot’ figure survives. They were perhaps thought to ensure the productivity of the mines and to protect Cyprus’ copper industry in its heyday in the 12th century BC. We don’t know the exact find-spot of this figurine, but it might be part of a group of solid bronze figurines found at Enkomi. Many bronze statuettes like this one were presented as cult offerings in the shrines of large towns such as Enkomi, where copper-smelting took place.
During the Early Iron Age, increased maritime mobility opened up opportunities to establish new colonies and pan-Mediterranean networks, and enabled the growth of long-distance trade. Like Cretan Kamares ware, Bichrome ware – a Cypriot style featuring geometric and natural motifs on a cream-coloured background – was popular in the Levant and Egypt, illustrating the extensive connections between the island and mainlands in the Iron Age.
By the Archaic period, most of the Mediterranean basin was linked through vast networks, with the Phoenicians and the Greeks now the agents of long-distance movement. Objects such as a small stone altar with a Phoenician-Punic inscription from Sulci Tophet, Sardinia, provide clear evidence of the complex Mediterranean interactions at this time. Sulci was situated on a small island, now called Isola di Sant’Antioco and joined to the Sardinian mainland by a narrow isthmus. It was founded by Carthaginians and became one of the chief seats of the Phoenician presence in Sardinia. Dating from 400-300 BC, the altar is dedicated to the Phoenician weather deity and king of the gods Baal Hammon (literally meaning ‘Lord Hammon’).
During the Roman period, all three islands had to reposition themselves in terms of international visibility against the increased control of the Mediterranean exercised by a single centre: Rome. Cyprus, for example, has been thought of as a backwater of the Roman dominion, but recent research highlights the island’s role in shaping provincial connections and its increased consumption of prestige ‘globalised’ Roman material culture, such as our exceptional statue of Dionysus, excavated at Salamis. The ancient city of Salamis on the east coast of Cyprus, where this statue was found in 1891, was occupied from around 1100 BC, mentioned as a kingdom in Assyrian inscriptions, and became a centre for Greek culture in the 4th century BC. Following the Roman conquest of the island, Salamis became part of the province of Cilicia, and was furnished with a theatre, a stadium, and public baths. The partially preserved marble statue of Dionysus was dedicated in the gymnasium of the city, a public building adorned by numerous statues and extensively rebuilt by emperors Hadrian and Trajan. Though made around AD 100-200, the sculpture – with a cloak flung over the left shoulder and draped in various ways over the forearm – is of a form created by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles around 400 BC. The style reflects the fascination of 2nd century AD artists with earlier Greek sculptural forms, meeting the appetite of the city’s elite.
It is a different deity who has remained most closely associated with Cyprus today. An earlier marble statue from Salamis, dating to 300-100 BC, depicts Aphrodite Anadyomene (‘rising from the waters’). In one version of the myth of the goddess’ birth, Cronus castrated his father Uranus, and cast his genitals into the sea. They floated to the surface, producing a white foam out of which Aphrodite arose. She was carried on the sea, and finally came to rest on the shores of Cyprus. In a graceful pose, Aphrodite Anadyomene would have been portrayed with her arms raised (now lost) and holding long tresses of wet hair in both hands, as though she were just emerging from the sea. This statue type had a profound impact on later artists, such as on Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli and his famous The Birth of Venus. In the 1960s, a very similar statue that had been found by a farmer ploughing his field in 1902 became the image that symbolised Cyprus’ ancient connection to Aphrodite. Reproduced in promotional material for tourism, it would also be linked to the beach Petra tou Romiou.
By looking at the objects and considering when and where they were made, by whom, and to what purpose, and also what happened to them after the end of their ‘use-lives’ (when they were no longer needed or appreciated for their original purpose), we can discern particular ‘ages’ or ‘periods’ in their lives that present us with stories of identity. One way we have approached this is by researching a group of metal objects dating from the Early Bronze Age to the beginning of the Classical period (c.2000-500 BC) from the Fitzwilliam’s Cypriot collections. Using macro- and microscopic examination, computerised tomography, X-ray fluorescence, and other techniques, a team of conservators and research scientists analysed the objects, which were forged from various metals (primarily bronze, copper, iron, gold, and silver) and in various forms (vessels, weapons, tools, symbolic and cultic objects, jewellery, and coins). This work helps establish whether we can detect different island identities through metallurgical practices, and how change in production methodologies or the introduction of new techniques can be indicative of the movements of people and objects. For example, details of the production of a magnificent sword, excavated at Tomb 12 of the necropolis of the Iron Age kings of Tamassos, Cyprus, clearly show, both in the choice of materials (everything but the copper would have had to have been imported into the island) and the advanced states of knowledge and skill applied in the production of this complex object, that the Early Iron Age was, for Cyprus, a time of rich intercultural exchange with regions within and across the island, the Mediterranean, and beyond.
Behind the objects are the people who made, traded, and used them and, of course, people live on the Mediterranean islands today, some still practising centuries-old crafts like pottery, glass-production, and jewellery-making. ‘When we researched the islands, we found the people,’ noted Dimitrios Bouras, one of our main collaborators in the ‘Being an Islander’ research project and producer of the Being an Islander documentary. Our project incorporated a large public-engagement strand with workshops, talks, and seminars, and a documentary, realised with the active participation of members of the community of an Aegean island. The documentary combined the voices of researchers and community members answering key questions, such as: what does it mean to be an islander?
The cultural history of objects from Sardinia, Crete, and Cyprus, and the voices of the islanders revealed either through linguistic, historic, or material-culture evidence presented in the exhibition or through the diasporic communities who engaged with the project, show how creative, adaptable, and inventive islanders are. They adapt to environmental and cultural changes, assimilations, invasions, and appropriations of their physical landscapes and their cultural horizons through millennia. All these events and processes, whether sudden or gradual, intense or subtle, contribute to creating and maintaining their sense of place and identity. And, beyond antiquity, material culture traditions and crafts, like the 600-year-old pottery workshops of Siphnos, where the project’s documentary was filmed, can serve as a springboard for discussion of aspects of identity in the Mediterranean islands today and even of Britain’s own island identity. It is a chance for us all to reflect on our own sense of place and identity.